Roger Day jogged along a sidewalk in Hatboro last weekend, clicking photos of pom-poms waving and his giddy daughter Melanie, a cheerleader marching in her first parade.

Melanie Day, who has Down syndrome, was experiencing something that has become invaluable for the 15-year-old Hatboro-Horsham High School freshman: a moment of fun and acceptance.

"She's participating. She enjoys being in front of the crowd - and [the cheerleaders] have been welcoming," said her father, an electrician. "She feels at home."

Melanie belongs to "Every Hatter Matters," a school program that by including special-needs students aims to make cheerleading more than just a booster of school spirit.

It is one of several in the area affiliated with the Sparkle Effect, a national initiative that promotes inclusive cheerleading. Others include schools in the North Penn and Cheltenham districts in Montgomery County; Burlington Township in South Jersey; and Pennsylvania State University.

At the same time, independent cheerleading academies - such as the Pennsbury Falcons Cheerleading Association in Yardley and the Rock Starz All Stars Cheerleading in Newtown - have launched their own inclusive programs, reflecting the wider trend toward integration.

"It used to be the students weren't in the same schools. Now they're in the same schools, in the same classes, and participating in sports and activities." said Sarah Cronk, founder and president of the Sparkle Effect.

Cheerleaders in the program may have autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, or muscular dystrophy, she said. Some may use wheelchairs or may not be verbal.

Cronk was a high school student herself when she founded the group in 2009 at her school in Bettendorf, Iowa. She was inspired by the plight of her brother Charlie, who has autism and struggled to fit in.

The Sparkle Effect now has 165 member schools. The group offers training for coaches, and is conducting a study of the program's effects.

Cronk traveled to Cheltenham High School earlier this year to train teacher- and student-coaches for their new program.

Stunts and moves are taught to fit the student, said Christina Bennett, a Cheltenham coach. Practices focus on repetition, with substantial breaks in between. Special-needs students are paired with a "cheer peer," who helps guide them through a cheer during rehearsal and on the field.

At a recent practice of the Fireflies, the Pennsbury team for youngsters with special needs, coaches taught moves by shadowing - placing their hands on top of the hands of their fellow cheerleaders and moving together.

Patience can be a challenge, said Kelsey McGuire, a junior at Kutztown University, who started the inclusive cheerleading program at Hatboro-Horsham, where Melanie Day performs.

But the program helps all cheerleaders "blossom and mature," said Nicholle Meyrick, who now runs the program.

At Burlington Township High School, cheerleaders with special needs will be part of the squad that performs at the national championships in Orlando in April. "Our goal is no cheerleader left behind," said Kim Gaskin, the squad's head coach.

Supporters champion the idea of integrated squads rather than separate ones in which students with special needs form their own team.

When parent Susan Davis heard about the Cheltenham program and thought it would be just a "special-needs team," she balked. Her daughter Sara, 17, who has Down syndrome, has been in regular classrooms since preschool.

"When she grows up, she's not going to a 'special-needs' mall or grocery store, and neither are the other kids," Davis said. "I believe it's important to educate all of our children in the environment in which they are going to live."

But when Davis discovered that the Cheltenham squad would be integrated, she signed her daughter up.

Later, Sara's cartwheel at a pep rally helped bring down the house.

"It's exciting," Sara Davis said in an interview. "I love it because I make friends and I love doing things with them."

Before the parade last Sunday, Hatboro-Horsham's squad gathered in a parking lot waiting to march. The high school band, also in the lot, rehearsed Christmas carols.

Melanie Day chatted with her fellow cheerleaders, clad in black track suits and gripping black and red pom-poms.

"I like everything about it," Melanie said - especially a move when she says she "flies:" falling back as her teammates catch her.

Nearby, Tyler Becker, the only boy on the squad, waited to line up.

Becker, 20, has cerebral palsy and developmental delays. In his first years of high school, he was the target of mean verbal jabs, mother Traci Morgan said.

"But now it's all good," she said.

Becker is a skilled gamer, works two jobs, and will graduate in 2016, she said. He joined the cheerleading squad four years ago.

"It's an opportunity to show people who I am and get other people involved," Becker said. "And I want to show that cheerleading is fun to do - and that they can do it, too."

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